Phase 24 - Of Kings and Pawns

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED TWILIGHT

Phase 24 - Of Kings and Pawns

March 12th, CE 77 - Capitol Building, Washington DC, Atlantic Federation

A roomful of senators and assorted other Congressional representatives that Seri contemptuously referred to as "Congress-critters" was not Senator Robert Meyers' ideal company he had little actual liking for his colleagues but in the interests of his agenda, his plans, his dreams, it was a necessary evil. And so Senator Meyers sat before the movers and shakers of his party, as they muttered amongst themselves and undoubtedly imagined that they had their Majority Leader's number.

Meyers would allow them that luxury for now, however. It was nice to believe things, and through his raven-haired little enforcer, he had enough dirt on every being in this room to end their political careers in one fell swoop.

"I'm sure you all understand the situation," he said, as his colleagues fell silent and leaned in to listen. "President Vasserot's approval ratings remain ambivalent, but Lord Djibril's remain high. Clearly Djibril is the far-preferred leader to our dear president. That is why I propose that we make our move."

"Meyers, that's too hasty," protested one jowly old man. "You know that impeachment is a move only suited to high crimes and misdemeanors."

"But we do have a case for it," another senator pointed out.

"Our case for it is highly open to interpretation," someone shot back. "We would have to rely on our ability to sell our interpretation "

"The machinery of impeachment is not meant to settle political differences!" the first man exclaimed.

"Senator," Meyers responded, silencing the room, "I would appreciate it if you did not patronize me with platitudes from men made of marble." He glanced around at the rest of his colleagues, strangling their protests. "Let us not pretend that we can seamlessly apply the wisdom of men that lived hundreds of years ago to the problems of the modern world. This is the way it has always been. Our ancestors placed those men on pedestals and left them there, encasing their cores and ideals with a shiny coat of marble, and then went about the business of reality." He fixed his gaze on the jowly legislator that had spoken first. "And that is why we must use the tools at our disposal, regardless of what those statues might think."

"Meyers " the man started.

"Our case is strong," Meyers continued, "but the winds of global politics bode poorly for our party and our agenda. Lord Djibril's enduring popularity among the Atlantic Federation will ensure that he can buy support for any creature he chooses to continue his legacy here. Reportedly, he had lost Joseph Copland's support in private, and would not have been long in losing it in public had it not been for Copland's disappearance. Vasserot has been the perfect and unquestioning pawn for Djibril. We must remove and discredit that pawn. That is where the strength of this ancient tool lies. Legally, our case is flimsy, but we have the great fortune of trying this not in a court of law, but in the court of public opinion. And such things as connections to the cover-up of the New Manhattan Massacre and business affiliations with corporations that are carrying out Extended research will easily sway that court to our side. Vasserot will fall, and the forces that will knock him down are forces too powerful for even Djibril to resist."

"So now is the time to make our move," someone concluded.

"We must act slowly, and release the various pieces of information we have gathered gradually," Meyers pointed out. "We must be cognizant of the context we are releasing this information into, so as not to arouse suspicion. But at the right speed and in the right setting, we can create a perfect storm that will knock Vasserot from office," he smiled, "and deliver that power into our hands."

Battleship Minerva, Krasnodar Krai, Russia

"We will be relentless in our attacks, and we will not stop until Lord Djibril and his men are driven from the Holy Land!" the bearded man on the screen screamed, standing before an adoring sea of followers. "We do not fear death, for we know that Almighty God is on our side! They have brought this punishment on themselves!"

Standing wearily on the bridge of the Minerva and watching the spectacle on the main screen, Abbey Windsor could only shake her head. Meyrin glanced up at her from the captain's chair, with a piping mug of hot soup in hand.

"I don't understand why people keep falling for this," Abbey said. "Where did these fanatics and superstitions come from? I thought we were all better than this."

Meyrin glanced back at the screen, taking a sip. "I guess when people feel that everything else is failing them, they return to religion. This is a pretty turbulent world we live in. Most people in the Earth Sphere live in poverty, and we've been fighting what seems like one big, long war for the past eight years. Where would you turn, if you lived a life like that, if not to God?"

"But this isn't the first time some charlatan claiming to have the word of God has cropped up," Abbey pointed out. "Are they forgetting that?"

"People forget lots of things, and the word of God is a lot more comforting than a long-winded explanation of economics and politics," Meyrin replied. "Either way it boils down to forces beyond your control, and you can't pray to Adam Smith's invisible hand to make your life better." She took another sip. "So if they want to believe in God, let them."

"It's not believing in God that's the problem," said Abbey. "It's when you start deciding that God wants you to do things to other people and from there, when you decide that God wants you to kill people." She glanced again at the screen, this time with distinct distaste. "I can't see how we can work with these people."

"Well, then you're not talking about God, you're talking about the self-appointed representatives of God." Meyrin sat back. "As for working with them, I don't like it either, but we don't really have a choice. The Resistance wouldn't exist if everybody didn't hate Lord Djibril more than they hate each other."

She closed her eyes, taking another sip of soup, and dug back into the reaches of her memory. Whenever she had free time, she seized the chance to read voraciously, struggling to increase her understanding of the world she was leading this ship through. It was not so much an innate curiosity although that element was present but a need to have answers when her crew had questions. She could not keep turning to Athrun or Shinn or Rau for advice the answers had to come from her.

"I hate to interrupt this rousing socio-theological discussion," Roxy put in wearily, "but I'm guessing you'd like to be aware that the EAF bigwig in Novorossiysk is making a statement."

Duly, the screen switched to the narrow, hawkish face of the Novorossiysk detachment's commander, Richard Yeager, in the starched green uniform of a brigadier general in the Earth Alliance Army. Meyrin suppressed the urge to sneer as she watched him soak up the attention the press was freely lavishing upon him a general for the cameras, clearly. But hopefully that would mean he would lack the skills of a commander tested in battle and hopefully whoever was really running the show in Novorossiysk would be easier to dispatch.

"Recently," the general began, "it has come to my attention that we will be having some high-profile guests in the Novorossiysk combat zone. Reports indicate that the Resistance battleship Minerva is on its way to assist the Resistance forces still holding out in the city and the outskirts."

"General!" a reporter exclaimed. "What are your plans for dealing with a unit as formidable as the Minerva?"

Clearly, General Yeager enjoyed being the man who was claimed to have the answers and Meyrin had to admit that the thought of wiping that smug grin off his face was a warming one.

"Obviously, for operational integrity's sake, I cannot specify those plans," he said, "but let me assure you that we are quite prepared to deal with the Minerva. I am fully aware that they have a long string of victories behind them, but my brigade will not become another one of their kills."

"Oh, he'll regret saying that," Roxy commented with a grin.

"Let him boast," Abbey said. "Maybe he'll say something dumb that can help us."

"Novorossiysk is mostly abandoned," Meyrin added, looking grimly towards the horizon, "so there won't be any holding back from our mobile suits." Even she had to smile. "I'd like to see what he's got that he thinks can stop Shinn Asuka."

As the angry cries of a mob and their leader were replaced by the dull and colorless words of the anchor, Emily slumped down tiredly into her seat in the Minerva's crew lounge, trying and failing to listen. It seemed that the man's complaints were only tangentially related to Lord Djibril, though and that made Emily wonder exactly what he was fighting for. She glanced around the table, finding Auel, Sting, and Shinn staring in boredom at the screen as well.
"Isn't that the son of a bitch that assassinated Lawson?" Auel asked wearily.

"Yeah, the bomb in '76," Sting answered.

The name sparked some terrible memories Emily thought back to the cruel, hawkish face of Russell Lawson, the brutal administrator of the Greater Palestine District, the man who had ordered the bombing of refugee camps. The stories made one's flesh crawl. When representatives of those refugees came to meet with the governor-general to negotiate a ceasefire, Lawson told them to wait in a conference room which he then filled with nerve gas. Surely if any man deserved to be blown to bits, it was Russell Lawson...right?

"What's so bad about him...?" Emily asked meekly. Shinn glanced at her.

"They hit Lawson's car with a bomb," he explained. "When it went off, it took out a van full of school kids as well."

Emily blanched, looking back at the bearded firebrand on the screen. "You mean he killed children?!"

"Yeah, they were 'martyrs,'" snorted Sting. "It must be pretty easy to martyr yourself when you don't know you're doing it, huh?"

"Then how can we work with people like that?" Emily asked, turning to Shinn, hoping he would be the man with the answer.

"It's more complicated than that," Shinn said quietly.

"But he killed children! That's just as evil as anything Lawson did!"

"I know," Shinn answered, furrowing his brow, "but...the world's not that simple." He looked back up at the screen. "You can't boil people down to just good or evil. There's more to everyone than that."

Emily considered that for a moment. "Even that guy that was Kyali's officer?"

She could see Shinn wince at the thought. "I'm sure he had more motivations than just evil," he answered. "That doesn't make any of what he did right. But it's the truth."

Emily sat back silently and tried to imagine what could have motivated Colonel Meyers.

Mementos were not high on the list of priorities for Athrun Zala he did not generally require tangible objects to be infused with symbolic meanings in order to appreciate memories and sentiments. But there was one such trinket that not even Athrun's Spartan demeanor could bear to part with.

Stretched out on his bunk on the Minerva, Athrun stared emptily at Cagalli's red pendant. As the passage of time failed to dull the sharpness of the pain, the pendant her parting gift to him as he returned to the PLANTs with his hollow victory over the Strike Gundam in hand had found a permanent home around Athrun's neck, hidden under his shirt, safe from prying eyes. He regarded it carefully for a moment it called to mind the good memories, the stolen kisses, the tender moments where Athrun and Cagalli could pretend that they weren't trying to be teenage revolutionaries, and could just pretend that they were two people in love.

With those memories, however, came the bitter realization that Cagalli had never really wanted to be just a teenager in love.

It had occurred to Athrun more than once that giving him this pendant was the only way Cagalli felt comfortable expressing herself infusing an inanimate object with symbolic meaning would not leave herself vulnerable. And the shadowy second side to the memories of those stolen kisses reinforced that thought. Even without Newtype senses, Athrun had always detected a degree of awkwardness on Cagalli's part, as if her guard had been down and she had to remind herself that this was what teenagers did when they were in love.

Of course, Athrun Zala was more than disciplined enough to suppress his desires and urges for the greater good. The stern soldier's voice of his father reminded him again that there were few things in the world less important than his own satisfaction, when compared to such a cause and so Athrun was willing and able to shelve his own feelings. But those urges did not submit quietly, and in those haunting moments of self-doubt, Athrun had to wonder how long he could go on pretending to be the princely bodyguard and enforcer that deep down he knew he was not.

The more he thought about it a painful endeavor, he had long ago discovered the more resolutely he came to the conclusion that his relationship with Cagalli had been less of a relationship and more of Cagalli constantly asking things of him; asking him to suppress his desire to be like any other teenage couple, asking him to sacrifice the life of a normal boy his age so that together they could accomplish something greater than themselves, asking him to throw himself into the inferno of war time and time again. He never felt as though she was willfully taking advantage of him Cagalli, after all, had possessed all the social skills of a rhinoceros but it was wearying to see her always asking things of him and never giving anything in return. He supposed that had she devoted the same kind of thought to their relationship as he was, she would conclude that her thanks to Athrun would be a place to call home...but that had not quite panned out.

And so, Athrun Zala ruefully had to wonder whether or not that relationship would really have lasted.

He looked back down at the pendant. He would never discard it that would mean abandoning his last link to Cagalli, and by extension, to Yzak, to Dearka, to Mwu, to Andy, to Murrue, to Lacus...the names went on. Some part of him, the same part that refused to accept that Cagalli was dead, was determined to make their dormant relationship work. He could not be alone not left without anyone by his side, left only with his combat skills. Once that was all he had left, he had no life worth living.

He would become Kira.

Athrun closed his fist around Cagalli's pendant.

Hart Senate Office Building, Washington DC, Atlantic Federation

"Senator Reed's death is a terrible tragedy," read Robert Meyers as his secretary furiously copied it down, "and my office and I send our heartfelt condolences to his friends and family. As one of the senator's closest colleagues, I assure the people of the Atlantic Federation that his work of investigating and prosecuting organizations aiding the Resistance will not go unfinished. It is a duty that we, as his colleagues, will take up in honor of his lifelong commitment to purging our government of corruption." He sat back, pondering for a moment. "I think that's sufficient."

The secretary scuttled out of the office, and Meyers cast his coal-black eyes towards Seri, standing halfway in the shadows with a troubled look on her face as the door slid shut.

"All the telltale signs of a Resistance attack were in place, sir," she said quietly, after a moment's hesitation. "And with Reed's work against the Resistance's corporate and charity benefactors in the Atlantic Federation, they're the first ones people would suspect in an assassination."

Meyers chuckled. "Your handiwork is as thorough as ever." He turned his chair back towards his computer. "That sniveling milquetoast would have derailed all our plans with some procedural quibble or arcane law. He would have ruined a life's work."

"Yes sir," Seri murmured.

A dark grin flashed over Meyers' face. "Soon we will be able to drop all this subterfuge," he said. "Soon the people will speak."

Heaven's Base, Iceland

Lord Djibril's vast wall of screens went dark, and the man himself sat back in his chair, brooding. The images of the burning wreckage were still fresh in his mind Senator Reed, the noted anti-corruption legislator who fought against the Resistance's corporate allies, had been assassinated via car bomb. All of the preliminary signs pointed towards a Resistance cell in the country, but Djibril's own intelligence network pointed to a far more unsettling source.

Djibril pondered the daunting figure of Robert Meyers, Majority Leader of the Atlantic Federation Senate. He was a powerful man surely he planned to do something with that power. The pundits believed that he was planning on harnessing the ever-formidable wave of populism to sweep himself into the presidency and unseat the aging Evander Vasserot.

That was certainly unsettling Vasserot was completely pliable and obedient where Joseph Copland had been restive. Vasserot showed no signs of losing his stomach for this war, and that was important. Djibril could not have the leader of one of the world's dominant superpowers not at his disposal. This war could not be won without the guns and the soldiers of the Atlantic Federation.

Djibril snapped his fingers, and smiled at the tap of combat boots on the polished steel floor of his screening room.

"Misa," he said, looking at the reflection in the screens of the thin, dark, feminine figure over his shoulder. "I have a task for you, concerning one Senator Robert Meyers."

"Do you wish me to kill him, sir?" answered Misa.

Djibril relished the thought for a moment, then quashed it. "Not yet," he said. "Espionage. I need leverage against this senator should he decide not to content himself with toppling Vasserot." He paused meaningfully. "I'm sure you understand."

"Of course, sir," she said, and an instant later, she was gone.

Djibril sat back, brooding. My fortress is unassailable. This time no one will stop us.

Earth Alliance battleship Charlemagne, Krasnodar Krai, Russia

"I find it odd," Danilov said quietly, sitting back on the bridge of the Charlemagne and watching the news reports idly, "that so many of Robert Meyers' supporters are targets of the Resistance."

At his side, Vera glanced up at the screen indifferently. "But Senator Reed's pet project was hunting down organizations aiding the Resistance. He even shut down charities."

"He was also a man who adhered rigidly to the precepts of the Atlantic Federation's oldest governmental documents," Danilov said. "Such that many of his allies felt he was being anachronistic. And with all the corruption in governments these days, I wouldn't be surprised if a colleague or a colleague's staff decided that he was," a pause, "too troublesome."

"Surely a member of the Atlantic Federation Senate would not have a colleague assassinated," Vera said, blinking at her captain.

"Oh, there are other entities that could be responsible for it," Danilov added with a shrug. "The corporations, for example. The Resistance is a great market for arms dealers who are currently locked in contracts with the Alliance. But Senator Meyers has great ambitions, and I find it odd that the lawmakers being assassinated are the ones that could be construed as obstacles to Meyers' plans."

Vera shuffled uneasily with her clipboard, and Danilov sensed that the weaknesses of the home front were not something she wanted to talk about. "The survivors we picked up from the Bonaparte arrived at Andrews AFB an hour ago," she said awkwardly. "The colonel's remains will be interred in Arlington."

Danilov narrowed his eyes at the thought of the colonel. Rumors had it that he had been using an Extended and Danilov could not summon the will to respect a colleague, even a late colleague, who used an Extended.

Between assassinations and human weapons, he sometimes had to wonder if he was on the right side.

Sven Cal Bayan eyed the two pilots before him coolly. Grey Saiba and Merau Seraux had both commanded mobile suit squads in battle, with adequate results and they had proven able enough to survive against the Minerva's Gundams, if not damage them. The duo seemed to be the most promising pair of regular Windam pilots aboard the Charlemagne, and in the wake of that rather disastrous battle in Volgograd, a change of tactics was called for.

"In light of recent developments, we've decided to change our combat tactics against the Minerva," he said to the two pilots sitting before him in his room. "Leading teams of mobile suits against the Minerva's Gundams has proven to be ineffective, so we will rely on individual skilled pilots to tie up certain machines, while the bulk of our Windam force will stay behind in range of the Charlemagne's guns, to lure in the rest of the Minerva's Gundams. With this tactic, we hope to split their forces and isolate two sets of enemies. Ensign Saiba, Ensign Seraux, you two will be the first assigned to the role of actively attacking enemies in battle. Are there any questions?"

"No sir," they both answered. Sven dismissed them, and turned towards Shams, watching from the wall next to the door with boredom written across his face.

"Are you sure this is gonna work?" Shams asked wearily. "The files on those two said that they're pretty good at not getting killed by the enemy, but they're not so great at killing the enemy."

"They graduated from Volkov Crater with some of the highest marks of their class," Sven answered.

"So did all those guys who got blown away at Volgograd."

Sven turned indifferently towards the door. "We will only be able to ascertain this strategy's effectiveness in battle. Picking it apart now would be futile."

Shams heaved a sigh, this time in irritation. "Don't be like that, Sven. We don't need to get our pilots killed just to see if your idea works."

"War demands sacrifice." He paused as his computer terminal beeped, and he threw a switch. The screen flickered to life, and Shams looked on in surprise.

"Sven, baby, I've been trying to reach you all day!" a woman's voice cooed.

Sven's eye twitched irritably. "Lieutenant Ramos," he said, "I trust you have something to report."

"That's Irene?!" Shams coughed, struggling to contain his laughter.

"I can't just check in on my favorite man?" the voice on the other end purred. "With you it's always business." Irene's pouting face was replaced by a wall of text and diagrams. "I broke into the Director's medical files while he was away and snagged a copy of his family's blood work and brainwave analysis charts. I don't know what to make of it, but there's strange highlights on the charts for his wife and youngest daughter."

"The Charlemagne's doctor will know what to make of this," Sven said. "Is there anything else?"

"Just the corrupt dealings of a morally bankrupt bureaucrat," Irene sighed. She glanced over her shoulder. "Looks like I'd better go. Love ya!" She blew a kiss towards the screen as it went dark.

Shams finally doubled over with laughter, and Sven said nothing as he copied the medical records. "I will take these records to the doctor after some editing," he said, sitting down at his terminal.

"After your amorous love letter back to Irene," Shams chuckled. "Oh man, I needed that."

Sven ground his teeth and set to work.

Battleship Minerva, outside Novorossiysk, Krasnodar Krai, Russia

An aging Mi-24V helicopter that looked to be held together as much by bubble gum and duct tape as by rivets and bolts was not exactly stylish transportation, but in the armory of the Resistance, it was good as any other more modern vehicle. As it creaked to a stop in the hangar of the Minerva, Meyrin glanced worriedly at Abbey, wondering if the thing wasn't going to spontaneously combust.

"If he came here in that thing," Abbey said quietly, "then I'm not going to question his bravery."

The side hatch yawned open, and after a trio of mud-spattered guerrillas streamed out, the man of the hour emerged. Meyrin looked over the diminutive man in black, leaning heavily on a gnarled walking stick, with a thin black turban and a bushy white beard.

"Salaam," the man said with a short bow. Meyrin and Abbey answered him with a crisp salute. "I am Mullah Hasid, the leader of the Resistance forces around Novorossiysk. And I must say up front that I greatly appreciate your assistance." He paused. "And I am certainly surprised to see children no older than my own in command of this ship."

"There are people younger than either of us fighting this war," Meyrin said, crushing her annoyance as she gestured towards the door. "What is the situation in Novorossiysk?

Hasid held back a sigh as they headed into the ship, and Meyrin needed no Newtype powers to see that whatever the situation was, it was something that kept the mullah up at night. "General Yeager commands a full brigade plus reinforcing elements from around the Black Sea region. His men hold control of the southern half of the city, including the port. Our fleet lies in wait near the Strait of Kerch, ready to attack, but our forces are disorganized along a line stretching across the city." His eyes darkened. "They have set up a prison camp in a empty lot in the southern part of the city, to process prisoners before shipping them to more...unforgiving prisons. And I fear they are slaughtering people there."

"That would not be unheard of for the Alliance," Abbey agreed grimly.

"Some of those prisoners should still be able to fight," Hasid went on. "If it's not too much to ask, I'd like to have one of your Gundams lead the men I have assigned to free those prisoners. To fight alongside a Gundam is an honor that I'm sure will boost their morale."

Meyrin forced a smile. "It won't be a problem. I know just the pilots for such a job."

Phantom Island, Indian Ocean

It was a towering construct that sprawled over a thousand meters and towered up over five hundred. It was Phantom Island, the mobile headquarters of the Phantom Pain, able to force itself up to speeds rivaling that of ZAFT's Lesseps-class over the open ocean, armed with nearly three hundred mobile suits and dozens of fixed armaments. And it was these iron walls that Crayt Markav called home.

Marshal Markav's Osprey VTOL plane, housing her white Euclid mobile armor, jolted to a halt on Phantom Island's main landing pad. The extendable gangway reached out to the plane's hatch; it swung open with a hiss, and Crayt Markav set foot back home.

There she was greeted by the crisp military figure of Major General Jeffrey O'Brien, commandant of Phantom Island. "Marshal, welcome back to Phantom Island," he said, extending his hand for a perfunctory handshake, and falling into step beside his commander. "We should be in position in the Strait of Hormuz in five days."

"The Charlemagne has orders to chase the Minerva down south through Mideast Command," Crayt said, with a thin smile. "I'm sure General Abdulmalik will exact from them a grim toll, and they will be all the easier to destroy at Hormuz."

"Resistance forces from around eastern Europe and central Asia are converging on Novorossiysk," O'Brien added. "Should we commit more forces to the battle ourselves?"

Crayt waved him off. "I am willing to allow the Resistance to marshal their forces in one place. It will make them easy to destroy in one fell swoop. It is our great fortune that Chiao Xu was a fool to adopt this strategy."

"Additionally, ma'am," O'Brien went on, "I have been asked to inform you that the Witch's Hammer has docked at Baku. The Night Tiger team may involve itself with this operation."

Crayt's visage darkened. "Djibril is meddling in our affairs again, but that is no matter. The Resistance is walking into a trap of its own making." She cast a sinister smile at O'Brien. "Take heart, general. God is with us."

Battleship Minerva, outside Novorossiysk, Krasnodar Krai, Russia

The screen was alive with the images of battle, and standing around the simulator, Shinn Asuka had to admit that under his tutelage, Emily had simply polished off skills that already seemed to be present. And that made him wonder why she seemed to take so easily to fighting.

As the Twilight Gundam gutted a charging BuCUE with the skill of a veteran swordfighter, Shinn glanced over at the two other spectators. Athrun Zala was silent, his mind clearly working like that of a soldier evaluating a combat performance. But there was some worry etched into the battle-worn features of Emily's older sister, Viveka.

"I wonder if I did the right thing, taking her in," Shinn wondered aloud. Athrun and Viveka glanced at him in surprise.

"Why would you think that you didn't?" Athrun asked.

"Well, I don't really think it's something to be proud of if you can slaughter whole squadrons of mobile suits in combat at age sixteen," Shinn answered. "Certainly wasn't the life I had in mind."

"Well, I'm glad you found her," Viveka added, putting her hands on her hips. "She's my sister, dammit."

"Sooner or later the Alliance would have found her, had you not taken her in," continued Athrun. "You acknowledged that yourself."

"I was hoping that she wouldn't have gone through all the shit she wound up going through," Shinn answered. He shook his head ruefully. "I saw so much of myself in her, and I wanted to protect her from all that stuff where I couldn't save myself. And I blew it."

"Hey, at least you care if she's getting hurt or not," Viveka said with a shrug.

"At the very least, I understand why you want to protect her," Athrun added. "And it's for the best that she be brought into this new world by people who care about her."

Shinn leaned back against the rail and sighed. "I wish I could protect everyone."

Athrun closed his eyes. "But it's impossible to protect everyone."

Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, Atlantic Federation

"The reality, sergeant, is that we simply don't have the space to keep you here," the orderly said, clipboard in hand and looming over the bedside of Sergeant Gregory Hayden in his cramped and tiny hospital room. "We have so many wounded coming in that if you aren't in critical need of this room, we have to send you home in favor of those who do need it."

Hayden nodded slowly. "I understand," he said. "That must be a hard decision to make."

"Yeah, and be glad you don't have to make it," the orderly said. "There's a man in the ER getting his legs reconstructed after they pulled him out of his mangled Windam. He'll probably be in here tonight, so I'd advise you get packed and get going soon. It's not gonna be a pretty sight in here."

The orderly took his leave, and Hayden pulled himself out of bed and gingerly lifted his almost empty duffel bag. He had taken few possessions with him aboard the Bonaparte, and what could be recovered was now in this bag, along with a uniform. He slowly pulled on the standard issue jackboots of the Phantom Pain.

Staring down at his boots, he considered something, and then rolled his pant legs down over the boots. They did not deserve to be seen.

Standing up was a challenge, as was walking, but he was a soldier. He could do this.

Gregory Hayden emerged into the crisp morning sun with a sigh, breathing in a lungful of air that graciously lacked the peculiar sterile smell of a hospital. He was out, back on his feet, seeing the world with his own two eyes again.

He looked to the sky, empty. Empty as that hangar brace aboard the Bonaparte, where the Extended's machine had been.

I'm a soldier, and I follow orders, he thought. Isn't that how it works?

He thought back to those horrible news reports that finally compelled him to join the Phantom Pain. He saw the soldier with the dull eyes, but instead of the grimy Resistance guerrillas, he saw her surrounded by the black-coated soldiers of the Phantom Pain.

I'm not a monster, he reminded himself.

And so he turned and headed down towards the street. The Resistance was waiting.

To be continued...